AP Exams: Who earns 4s and 5s?

Jun 2024

14 Minute Read

Tagged as: Advanced Placement

Discusses which exams students generally score better on, why harder exams generally get higher scores, and weighted grading

The Advanced Placement curriculum features over 30 courses. Each of these courses, in turn, offers the opportunity for students to take an exam, which can be a) helpful when applying to universities, b) make students eligible to apply to more competitive schools,1 and c) to earn college course credit.

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In our previous post, we discussed what the individual Advanced Placement (AP) exam scores mean.

To briefly recap: AP exams are scored from 1 to 5. The higher a student’s score, the more likely they are to earn credit for one, two, or even three university courses.2

Naturally, however, scoring a 5 is more difficult on some exams than others. Yet the subjects that see more students earning scores of 4 or 5 may surprise you (and further, who is earning these high scores)! In this post, we are going to compare "easy" versus "difficult" subjects.

Which Advanced Placement exams boast the most students scoring 5?

In 2016, these were the five AP exams that had the greatest number of students scoring 4s and 5s:

Now, let’s look at the five exams that had the lowest percentage of students scoring 4s and 5s:3

The first thing we notice is that the subjects featuring the greatest amounts of high scores are generally regarded as some of the most difficult subjects. In contrast, the exams with the fewest high scores are considered to be easier.

This may seem a bit counterintuitive. How can lower-level exams be more difficult? The answer to that question is not necessarily in the material the exam covers, but what year in school a student is, and the weighted grading of the AP exams.

Why do students taking the harder exams get higher scores?

Part of this answer lies in the respective ages of the students taking AP exams.

CollegeBoard’s data from 2016 reveals that the percentage of students earning scores of 4 and 5 is similar during the first two years of high school. Approximately 12.5% earned 5s, while 18.6% earned 4s. For juniors and seniors, the average amount of 5s increases slightly to around 14.5%, while the average amount of 4s increases to 19.6%.

These 1- and 2-percent increases may not seem like much. However, over three times as many students take AP exams when they are in their last years of high school than before.

Generally, the more difficult exams require a lot more preparation and prerequisites. A student needs to have at least four years’ worth of mathematics in order to take AB or BC Calculus courses.4 Similarly, students must have at least 3 years’ worth of language courses plus additional study to do well in any AP language course.5

In short, the more experience a student has in a given subject, the more likely they will be to succeed. Third- and fourth-year high school students have not only taken more prerequisites for the harder subjects, but they also have had time to develop study skills and work with teachers and tutors one-on-one.

Working with a tutor during high school is particularly useful for many students. This type of focused instruction allows students to work more thoroughly through difficult concepts than they would be able to in a class with more students. Tutoring is also more conversation-based, meaning that students are more able to ask questions and get direct feedback.

What is Advanced Placement weighted grading, and how does it influence the exam score?

Generally speaking, most AP exams have a multiple-choice section and a free-response section. Each of these sections counts for a certain portion of a student’s composite score. In other words, each section has its own weight. This is called weighted grading.

Here’s an example: The multiple-choice portion of the AP Psychology and Microeconomics exams are worth 66.7% of the student’s total score, while the free response section (or: short essay questions) is worth 33.3%. However for AP Chemistry, each section is worth 50% of the total score.

One of the exams with the lowest percentage of 5s, World History, is structured differently still. The multiple choice portion is only worth 40%, while the three written portions (short answer, document-based analysis, and long essay) are worth 60%. Writing and reasoning skills are critical in this case, and this is what makes getting a 5 on this exam so difficult.

AP World History does not have prerequisites, which allows younger students and others who may not yet have well-developed writing or analysis skills to enroll. However, scoring high does require advanced writing and critical thinking skills, which is why so many students don’t score very well. In other words, writing and analysis skills should be considered requirements for completing the course, but they are not always measured very well before students begin the course. Often, students focus more on memorizing facts about history and less on higher-order skills during their first AP courses. When this happens, students often do not study correctly, which leads to lower scores.6

How is the weight of each section determined?

The weight of different sections in each Advanced Placement exam is designed with university-level courses in mind. To ensure that these exams are evaluated accurately and in accordance with university course structure, university faculty are selected to evaluate the free response sections.

While multiple choice sections are easily graded via computers, it is necessary to have curriculum experts and university professors examine the free response questions before they are used on the exam as well. This system ensures that exam scores are determined fairly and accurately, and further, that they are a good measure of how well a student would have done in a university-level class.

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  1. The University of Washington notes that international first-year students who have completed more advanced curricula such as the A-levels or Advanced Placement / IB diplomas will likely be given priority in admission. 
  2. The University of Washington’s Advanced Placement (AP) Policies, for example, detail what courses a student can receive credit for with high exam scores.
  3. To view the full list of exam score distributions, please consult CollegeBoard’s official 2016 data.
  4. The Khan Academy’s article, "What to Know Before Taking AP Calculus," provides some excellent perspective on the prerequisites to the course (and similarly, the AP exam). 
  5. For example, according to CollegeBoard in the case of AP French, "There are no prerequisite courses, but typically students enter this course with three to five years of language instruction at the high school level." 
  6. According to PrepScholar, "…exams with some of the lowest passing rates, like Environmental Science and Government, are ones many students say are the easiest. They have lower passing rates because younger high school students who are less prepared for AP exams in general take these classes, but also because students simply underestimate them and don’t study enough." 

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